In Search of Salmonflies

A bashful salmonfly resisting photojournalism.

It was Miners Union Day, so, naturally, I was looking for salmonflies.

 For readers in places other than Butte, Montana, Miners Union Day might not mean much, but back in the heyday of underground mining in Butte, June 13, Miners Union Day was a big summer holiday, celebrating both Butte’s mining heritage, and the founding, in 1878, of the Butte Miners Union No. 1, which, in 1885, became the first chapter of the Western Federation of Miners. Of course, there’s a lot more to the history of Butte’s mining unions, but my beat is the outdoors, not labor history.

 As it happens, the emergence of adult salmonflies on the Big Hole River happens around the same time, so the two events are inextricably associated with each other here in Montana’s Mining City.

 I found salmonflies, though not as many as I hoped to find, or as many as I have found in past outings about the same time.

More to the point, the fish didn’t seem particularly interested in my offerings of counterfeit salmonflies, either on top or on the river’s bottom.

Actually, as far as salmonflies are concerned, the catch of the day was when Kiri, my Labrador retriever and faithful fishing partner, came running up with a plastic container holding around a half dozen salmonfly imitations, most likely dropped from a passing boat a day or two earlier. Over the years, I have often collected fake salmonflies from streamside willows after spring runoff waters have receded. This was a first time to collect a bunch.

Kiri in a characteristic pose.

  As far as spring runoff, while it was just mid-June, it was clear that the spring runoff season on the Big Hole River was over. I had fished the same spot about 10 days earlier and the river was significantly higher, faster, and dirtier. In numerical terms, the river flow had dropped from around 2900 cubic feet per second (CFS) to 1400 CFS, and it is continuing to drop every day.

 On the positive side, there was a profusion of aquatic insect life. Besides salmonflies, there were big golden stoneflies and small golden stoneflies fluttering about. There were also caddisflies, even if not as many as a couple weeks earlier. Along with all the other bugs, there were pale morning dun (PMD) mayflies hatching.

 In other words, for those of us who like dry fly fishing, right now is the best time to be fishing on the Big Hole and, presumably, other local streams, as well.

 With lower water conditions, wade fishing is getting to be more feasible, and with the all-you-can-eat buffet going on, fish are starting to look up for their next bite of food.

 Naturally, there are no guarantees that trout will take those dry flies. I worked one little stretch of water where I could see fish rising. I was using a PMD imitation and I got rises but no hookups. After a few minutes, the fish stopped rising. After repeating the same strategy on a few other runs, I switched to a small beadhead soft-hackle nymph and caught two trout, a brook trout and a brown trout.

 We took a lunch break, with Kiri and I sharing a sandwich while watching the parade of passing drift boats and rubber rafts, some with anglers, and some with people just enjoying a Sunday boat ride. Then we walked back to the water.

 I found some more rising fish and after some misses and refusals, I caught a chunky grayling, a precious jewel of the Big Hole River. I think this was the third one I’ve caught this season, so far.

 While walking along the shoreline, I looked for salmonflies to photograph. I’ve got quite a few photos of them, but I can’t have too many. I saw one fluttering around in some dead grass, so I put my hat on the ground and then put the bug on my hat. It wasn’t interested in modeling and kept trying to run away.

I’m used to fish rejecting my offerings. It’s kind of insulting when a salmonfly rejects me, too.

A more cooperative salmonfly a few days later.

Two salmonflies entwined in passion.

Paul Vang’s new book, “Golden Years, Golden Hours,” is available at How Novel, The Second Edition, Isle of Books & Books, or online at

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